Forsyth 1912: George “Ed” Merritt

In September 1912, white residents accused seven Black residents in Forsyth County, Georgia, of sexually assaulting two white women. As a result, white residents of the county lynched Rob Edwards in downtown Cumming. Shortly afterward, two Black teenagers, Ernest Knox and Oscar Daniel, were executed publicly following a conviction by an all-white jury for the rape and murder of Mae Crow. These accusations ignited a months-long campaign by white residents to forcibly expel Forsyth County’s Black population through violence, threats, and intimidation. By 1920, the more than 1,100 Black residents who once called Forsyth County home were gone.

Among those who fled were Ed and Jane Merritt with their four children, the youngest, Beatrice, being only four years old. They likely traveled on foot to Buford, Georgia. Shortly afterward, their fourth son, George “Ed” Merritt, was born on June 17, 1913. Ed Merritt Sr. and his oldest son Theodore worked as tanners at Bona Allen Tannery in Buford. For many fleeing residents, the tannery was the most convenient work they could find. By age 16, Ed Jr. was also a leather worker at the tannery. Ed Sr., Jane, and their older children never shared the details of the racial terror they experienced in Cumming. Like many in the first generation born after the racial cleansing in Forsyth County, Ed Jr. knew of Forsyth’s history but remained uninformed about his family’s specific experiences.

Buford, Gwinnett County, Georgia, May 1921. Sanborn Map Company, Digital Library of Georgia

Ed Jr. served in the U.S. Army during World War II. While he was on active duty, his father died in 1945. Upon returning from service, he began working at a grocery store. According to the 1950 U.S. Census, Ed and his oldest son worked 60 hours a week at the store to support their family. Ed was a deacon and Sunday school teacher at Poplar Hill Baptist Church. His daughter, Candace Jones, described him as an incredibly hard worker and an exceptional father.

“He was a great father,” she said. “I was the last of six, so everybody always said I was the spoiled one. He went to all my ball games, band concerts, and everything I was in. He was there for me. I never had to ask him twice.”

George Edward Merritt draft registration, Gwinnett County, October 16, 1940. U.S., World War II Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-194, Ancestry.com

Ed was born during a period of racial strife in American history. His parents raised him in the aftermath of the 1906 Atlanta Race Massacre, the racial cleansing in Forsyth, and amid a nationwide epidemic of lynchings. Candace is uncertain about what inspired her father, but at 55, Ed Merritt ran for Buford City Commissioner in 1968. He was the first African American to qualify as a candidate in Gwinnett County, according to the Atlanta Journal, and the first to seek election there. He ran against Noah Harrington, a business owner, property developer, and Buford tax assessor. Though Ed lost the election by 79 votes, he still garnered 45% of the vote.

“First Negro Seeks Buford Board Spot,” November 1, 1968. Columbus Ledger via Newspapers.com

The loss did not deter Ed. He continued his political endeavors. In 1973, he ran against Lee Wynn Jr. for a seat on the Buford School Board and won, receiving 60% of the vote. He was re-elected unopposed in 1975. During this period, African Americans across Georgia ran for local offices, integrated schools, and entered previously segregated spaces, challenging the implementation of the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. Growing up in the shadow of racial violence, Ed Merritt spent his later years as a local champion of civil rights.

Elected members of the Buford School Board. Ancestry.com

His legacy endures through his children and grandchildren, who recall the emphasis he placed on education and voting. He often told them, “Regardless of what you do, vote.” If anyone suggested that voting wouldn’t make a difference, he’d respond, “Yes, it will matter. It’ll matter to yourself to go out and vote.” In 2020, Olde Town Estates, a Buford subdivision, named streets after notable individuals and places in Buford’s history, including Ed Merritt Way, which is named after George “Ed” Merritt.